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Racing Roundup: Wickens, Hinch do Themselves Proud at Honda Indy

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Norris McDonald By: Norris McDonald July 15, 2019
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There were two winners of the Honda Indy Toronto Sunday and neither one was in the racing car that crossed the finish line first.

The first winner was Robert (Robbie) Wickens of Guelph, who led the parade lap in an Acura that was specially fitted out with hand controls. Wickens lost the use of his legs in a grinding crash at Pocono International Raceway last August and has been battling back ever since, keeping his fans – and IndyCar fans generally – up to date on the progress of his recovery, primarily through social media.

That he received a standing ovation from the people in the packed grandstands, as well as others in general admission areas around the circuit (under shade trees along Lake Short Blvd. was a favourite spot) was a testament to his determination and his grit. He truly is an inspiration for anyone battling physical illness or mental or emotional issues. Through the highs and the lows of the last year, he has never given up. Could the rest of us say the same?

And Hinchcliffe, who had a rotten qualifying and went off 14th out of 22 on the gird, finished sixth at the checkers, a wonderful achievement.  The five who finished in front of him – winner Simon Pagenaud, second-place Scott Dixon and Alexander Rossi, Josef Newgarden and Felix Rosenqvist who were third, fourth and fifth respectively – all qualified in the top five. Colton Herta was the only other driver who made a charge, going from sixteenth starting position to finishing seventh. It would be a tossup between Hinchcliffe and Herta as to which one deserved to be called Driver of the Race.

So why wouldn’t that accolade be awarded to Pagenaud, you say? Two reasons: when you start from pole and you drive for Roger Penske, you have two big advantages. The first is self-explanatory; the second is that Penske is a perfectionist whose philosophy rubs off on all his employees.

Pagenaud was on the ropes at the start of the season and the talk of the paddock was that he would be sent to a retirement home, a.k.a. given a seat in sports car racing. He responded by sweeping the Indianapolis races in May and being a consistent threat just about every time out since. Penske likes people who respond well to pressure and confirmed at the 500 that Pagenaud had earned a ride at Penske Racing in 2020.

But another Penske driver, Will Power, is feeling the pressure, big-time. He didn’t qualify well (15th) and then when the Honda Indy started, he lost his marbles by trying too hard. He triggered a melee at Corner 9 on the first lap that caught up several other competitors and then he crashed into a tire wall at that same Corner 9 with a lap remaining that resulted in the race finishing under the yellow caution flag.

Speculation has it that Penske will sign Rossi away from Andretti Autosport at the end of the season and drop Power from his three-car lineup (Josef Newgarden being the third driver). A friend agrees, but – in a twist – suggests Power will then sign with Andretti and start delivering victories over there. We will see.

That the Honda Indy is back, let there be no doubt. The crowd on Fan Friday was large (admission was free in return for a donation to Make-A-Wish Canada), the Saturday crowd was bigger and every seat was sold out for the race Sunday. There was a healthy walkup crowd too. You can always tell if the ticket is hot by the number of scalpers in evidence. I know those guys (I’m a newspaper reporter, remember; I notice things) and the big guns were out for this one. By that, I mean scalpers who are usually outside Leafs and Raptors games were meeting GO trains Sunday with cries of, “Who’s got tickets . . . who’s selling tickets. . . . .”

Great to see.

The race itself was a bit of a yawner, in that Pagenaud went from pole to checkers without being passed. Dixon started second and was second at the finish. And so on. Hinchcliffe said the reason there were so few passes is because the calibre of cars and drivers in IndyCar is top notch and there is parity. Whatever, auto racing is entertainment and while the race was okay, it could have been better.

On the way home – I took the GO train, which is the only way to travel these days with downtown Toronto such a mess – I met a guy named Bret Wills, who was in a wheelchair and wearing an Arrows team cap. It turns out that he went to high school in Oakville with James Hinchcliffe as well as James’s fiancé, Rebecca Dalton.

Honda Indy Toronto

Bret looked them up at the weekend and they had a bit of a reunion. Then he spent time with Robbie Wickens, telling him that he was an inspiration.

I told Bret (see photo) that he is the inspiration. Born with spinabifida, a congenital defect of the spine that often causes paralysis of the lower limbs, he could walk until he was in college and he’s been in a wheelchair since. A production assistant for a food company, he drives himself around in a specially fitted out Mazda.

I asked him how old he is and he said he turns 35 in two weeks, “but I feel 75 every morning.”

It’s guys like Robbie Wickens and Bret Wills who show a guy like me that compared to what they have to handle each and every day, I have absolutely no problems.

Could Wickens be preparing for a life as a team manager or team owner? I suggest he is. What else would his precede to the traditional “Drivers, Start Your Engines” command mean? He said – and I quote: “Future drivers of mine, start your engines.” I think he’s moving on.

It was 23 years ago on Sunday when Jeff Krosnoff was killed near the end of what was then called the Molson Indy. He pulled to the inside to overtake going into Turn 3 when another driver moved to block him. This is one of the many reasons I can’t stand blocking, or “defending your position,” in formula car road racing. The best way to defend your position is to go faster so nobody can pass you. When Krosnoff’s left front open wheel made contact with the right rear of the car doing the blocking, it shot it up in the air and through an opening in the fence where marshals were stationed, killing Gary Avrin of Calgary. The car then hit a light post and a tree before landing back on the racing surface. They took him to hospital but he was gone before the cockpit hit the ground.

I’d had a chance four days earlier to interview him but got so carried away talking to P.J. Jones that I ran out of time. Jones drove for Dan Gurney’s All American Racers, which was also running the Arciero-Wells Indycar entry for Krosnoff. I was interested in Jones because his father, Parnelli Jones, is one of my heroes, and P.J. himself had raced a midget that spring at the Chili Bowl in Tulsa, Okla. Krosnoff struck me that day, and remains in my mind, as a very quiet, serious guy. It was just such a shame.

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Okay, I have to say it: Liberty Media obviously told the F1 stewards to lay off when it came to anything questionable. Which they did Sunday at Silverstone. Max Verstappen and Charles Leclerc were taking turns running the other off the track and those stewards all just looked the other way. Fair enough.

But it was obviously frustrating for them, because when they had to make a ruling after Sebastian Vettel ran into the back of Max, they overreacted by lowing the boom on the German who is now officially F1’s whipping boy.

Vettel was annoyed when Max moved ever so slightly to block him (”What was he doing?”) but decided to take the fall after the fact rather than fight on, which it seems he’s been doing most of the time since Montreal.

The phrase “the stewards are taking a look at that” should be banned from the English language. You have two guys racing hard and they crashed. It happens.

Bully for Lewis, who has now won six British Grands Prix. But for the good of the sport, can he please drive for Williams next year? Toto Wolff should take a year off from Mercedes and go manage Fernando Alonso’s career at Indianapolis. Anything but the status quo, please.

Okay, here are a couple of other quick observations:

We complain over here that motor sport doesn’t get any space in the papers and not much time on the TV. I flew back from Scotland on Wednesday and I bought copies of the Times of London and the Daily Telegraph before getting on the plane. There was nothing about the Grand Prix in either of them. More than 140,000 people were going to show up at Silverstone on race day and not a word was in the papers in mid-week. Lots of space was given to soccer (football, pardon me), cricket and Wimbledon tennis but sba about auto racing.

Honda Indy Toronto

They had to change the rear wings on Max’s and Pierre Gasly’s Red Bulls when they were on the grid. They asked Christian Horner about this and he shed absolutely no light. I bet that people were leaning on them and bent them. That’s my guess – and I’m sticking to it.

Does Martin Brundle own a controlling stake in Sky Sports? I can’t figure out why they continue to let him do the grid walk. He’s awful, deplorable, horrible. In short, he stinks. He runs around after people, many of whom ignore him or, if they see him coming, turn and head the other way. The drivers are rushing to get into line for the playing of the national anthem and he’s got the mic stuck out, looking for someone to stop and talk to him. Memo to Sky: deep-six Brundle and let Johnny Herbert do it. At least, he can be funny and laugh at himself.

The two F-18s that flew over Exhibition Place Sunday just before the start of the Honda Indy did a great job but they don’t stand up to the Red Arrows (or the snowbirds). At the conclusion of God Save The Queen Sunday, the Red Arrows flew over Silverstone and it was a wonderful spectacle. Great stuff

NASCAR CANADA

This from Alex Gallacher of NASCAR.com

One year ago Alex Tagliani was in position to win. After leading all 35 regulation laps, Tagliani was passed in a heartbreaking NASCAR Overtime finish by eventual winner Andrew Ranger. Flash forward to 2019 and Tagliani came to Toronto with one goal in mind – redemption.

Tagliani, who won the E3 Spark Plugs Pole Award, was challenged by stiff competition all race by Ranger and teammate Marc-Antoine Camirand. With two late race restarts and a NASCAR Overtime finish, Tagliani redeemed himself by scoring the victory in this year’s Pinty’s Grand Prix of Toronto.

Tagliani’s No.18 RONA/EpiPen Chevrolet lost the lead to Camirand in a late restart, however Camirand gave the lead back after a late crash set up NASCAR Overtime. Tagliani was able to sneak by the wreck and hold off a bloodthirsty Ranger, Kevin Lacroix and LP Dumoulin.

In the end, the 45-year-old driver from Lachanaie, Que., was able to hold off all who opposed leading 34 of 37 laps to claim his ninth career NASCAR Pinty’s Series victory and second on the streets of Toronto.

“After last year, we felt like we had some unfinished business,” Tagliani said. “It was a great race, a great qualifying, maximum points for the weekend which is good for the team. It seems like this race track brings a bit of luck and its a turn around for our championship, it was last year. Hopefully it’s going to be this year and hoping for more good things to come this year”

Ranger, who came into the weekend one point behind Kevin Lacroix in the standings, managed to steal the lead from Tagliani near the halfway point. On the final restart Ranger did all he could to get around the No.18, Ranger would ultimately settle for second grabbing the points lead from Lacroix.

Honda Indy Toronto

“On the start, my car was very fast and we got to lead some laps.” Ranger said. “Last restart, I stayed with Alex. Green, white, checkered, same thing. I tried to make a move on the inside but it didn’t work. I was not trying to push too hard and destroy the car.”

L.P Dumoulin used the overtime restart to his advantage, surging to his first podium finish of the season, and second at Toronto.

Lacroix brought his battered and bruised Bumper to Bumper Dodge home in fourth. He was followed by J.F Dumoulin, who completed the top five finishers.

Anthony Simone was sixth and Peter Klutt following behind in seventh. Jason Hathaway, D.J Kennington and Jason White rounded out the top ten.

Following the Pinty’s Grand Prix of Toronto, Ranger holds a two-point gap over Lacroix. With the win, Tagliani remains in third place, moving within 14 points of Ranger for the lead.

The Pinty’s Grand Prix of Toronto will air on TSN July 21 at 1:30 p.m.

The NASCAR Pinty’s Series next embarks on their annual Western Swing. The Velocity Prairie Thunder Twin 125s at Wyant Group Raceway will be held July 24, followed by the LUXXUR 300 at Edmonton International Raceway July 27.

RACING AT JUKASA

This from John Strothard, reporting from Jukasa Speedway where the modifieds and supermodifieds ran on Saturday night:

Sixteen supers signed in. Michael Muldoon was out for the night with a blown engine in hot laps. Tim Jedrzejek and Kyle Edwards won the heats.

Twenty-one RLOC Mods took the green. Chuck Hossfeld led from the pole but was challenged the entire way. An entertaining affair. There was a one-hour rain delay at Lap 64. Andy Jankowiak and Patrick Emerling followed Hossfeld home.

Ben Seitz was on the pole for the supermodified race. Caution on Lap 12 sees Canadian Dave McKight Jr. drop out. Caution on Lap 34 (of 50). Chris Perley moves into second and then storms into the lead with authority on Lap 37. Perley survives a Titanic challenge from Mike Lichty with two laps to go. Perley, Lichty, Bowes the top three.

Sparse crowd; I estimate 1,500. Despite the rain, we were heading home at a reasonable hour. Two very enjoyable races. I’d appreciate stronger car counts and maybe an additional class. A very pleasant night at the speedway, in any case.

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The race at Kentucky Speedway in the NASCAR Monster Energy Cup series was a barn burner with the Busch brothers battling it out to the end. Kurt came out on top, with Kyle finishing second and Ed Jones third, followed by Kyle Larson and Denny Hamlin. As the race was held Saturday night, I’m sure most NASCAR fans know all about it. If not, here’s a link to check out the details.

Sebastien Buemi won the Formula Electric race in New York Saturday but Jean-Eric Vergne wrapped up the title Sunday. Saturday, Buemi scored his first win in two years in the category and scored the maiden victory for the Nissan e.dams team. Four drivers were still in contention going into Sunday but it was all for naught. While Robin Frijns won the race, Vergne managed to arrive home seventh, to clinch his second straight title. My colleague, Jim Kenzie, who’s known for not being a particularly big fan of electric cars, was at the races and emailed me this Saturday: “I just came back from my first electric car race, and I have to say, it was terrific!! Electric cars still have no chance, but it was fun to watch!” . . . . .

Matthew Ballinger of Hampton, Ont., and co-driver Bruce Leonard of Georgetown won the Black Bear Rally, fourth round of the Eastern Canadian Rally Championship at the weekend. . . . .

Roman DeAngelis of Windsor won both Porsche GT3 Cup Challenge Canada by Yokohama races at the weekend. It was his third consecutive weekend sweep. There’s just no beating the guy, just like you could never beat Zach Robichon or Scott Hargrove before him. There must be something in the water . . . . .

There was lots of racing at Exhibition Place this weekend, other than the headline Honda Indy. Gavin Harlien was the Stadium Supertrucks champion (they combined the race results from Saturday and Sunday), with Matt Brabham second and Casey Potts third. Russell Boyle of Toronto finished sixth. Supertrucks are hilarious to watch. Not only are they speeding along but they go over jumps, which always makes things interesting. It was nice to see the trucks actually make it to the end of a race. Friday, Boyle drove over a manhole cover that wasn’t tacked down and the session was cancelled while repairs were made. Saturday, they actually went seven laps before a passing storm put a stop to that. Sunday, they went the distance. Former Indy car star Robby Gordon owns the series, so he was out there, as was former NASCAR Cup driver Casey Mears. I asked Mears what he was doing driving in a supertrucks race in Toronto. “Having fun,” he said. . . . .

In Road to Indy racing, Christian Rasmussen (no relation to the Alberta Rasmussens) won the Sunday USF2000 race while Darren Keane was the winner Saturday. In Cooper Tires Indy Lights, Aaron Telitz won the race Saturday and Oliver Askew was top step of the podium on Sunday. Canadian Dalton Kellett of Toronto, who I featured Saturday in Toronto Star Wheels, was eight Saturday but finished third Sunday. Well done. , , , ,

By Norris McDonald / Special to wheels.ca

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